Welcome! As we’ve done once before, this week I am going to take a chance to answer a number of shorter questions by my patrons over at Patreon who are at the Patres et Matres Conscripti tier, which entitles them to a seat in the ACOUP Senate (and for those of you who are in the ACOUP Senate, please note that over on Patreon there should be a poll up on the first longer question that ought to get its own dedicated post).
As before, I want to make clear that the responses to these questions aren’t necessarily as carefully researched or planned as a longer post; they reflect roughly what you’d get if you asked me the same question in office hours or after one of my classes. Of course I try to avoid errors or pontificating on topics about which I know little (I try to do both of those things all of the time), but these are still a bit less comprehensive than a full post.
And of course if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; as mentioned patrons who join the Patres et Matres Conscripti get to propose questions that I answer here. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
Q: Leo Zhang asks, “What are other non-Mediterranean analogs for the collapse of the Roman Empire?”
A: So how to answer this question depends a fair bit on how specific we are about ‘non-Mediterranean.’ The most obvious analog is the Mediterranean-adjacent Late Bronze Age Collapse (LBAC) which occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East around 1100 BC. If anything, the LBAC was substantially more severe than the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, though it shares a pattern in that areas that were on the periphery of the state system (Greece in the LBAC; the Roman West and especially Britain during the fall of Rome) were far more dramatically impacted than areas in the core. In the Roman case, of course, the Eastern half of the empire kept on after the collapse of the West with relatively limited disruption; during the LBAC, Egypt and the (Middle) Assyrian Empires weathered the collapse with substantial but not overwhelming disruption. By contrast, during the LBAC, many of the urban centers of Greece (to be clear, this is not classical Greece, but Greek urban centers some four centuries before Homer) were abandoned, architecture in stone almost entirely ceases (a shift back to wood), and technology of writing (in Linear B script) is lost, to be readopted (using the Phoenician script) three to four centuries later.
The causes of the Late Bronze Age Collapse are difficult to untangle. There’s some evidence for climatic disruption (possibly related to volcanic activity, but the dates don’t line up as clearly as we’d like) which would have negatively impacted agriculture. There seems to be pretty significant evidence that once things started going wrong, there was a domino-effect where state collapse in one region produced raiding and refugees that strained resources in the next, while disrupting the trade networks that states relied on for both revenue and military equipment. It’s also possible that the emergence of ironworking (and thus iron weapons, which were cheaper than bronze) may have had a role, though I have to admit I am quite skeptical of this last model.
If we want to get solidly outside of the Mediterranean, the collapse of the Han Dynasty (206BC-220 AD) into the Three Kingdoms era (220-280) has fairly strong parallels with how Roman power declined in the western parts of the empire, particularly in how the loss of power int he imperial center caused the steady fragmentation of the empire into much smaller competing states. The warfare and fragmentation of the period seem to have been very destructive, though as with all pre-modern collapses, most of the population decline must have been in the form of disease and famine (potentially taking place gradually in the form of increased infant mortality playing out through subsistence farming survival strategies). If the census figures of the period are to be believed (there is, as I understand it, grounds for significant skepticism), by the time the Jin dynasty reestablished unified control of the country and could do a new census, the population of China had declined by almost 60% from its Han Dynasty peak over a period of just over a century. Its hard to compare that figure to the collapse of Rome because the evidence of the latter permits no firm estimate of population decline (though there probably was some) but my sense is that a decline of two-thirds of the population would be substantially worse than what we tend to think the decline was after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.
And as an aside, “Was the Fall of Rome Bad and If So How Bad Was It?” is one of the long-response topics up for voting over on Patreon for members of the ACOUP Senate, if you want me to write something more on that and the historical arguments that swirl around that question.
Q: Maxwell Goebl asks, “What tactics did the Romans use to defeat steppe peoples, Parthians or other people who used horse archers?”
A: We have a few interesting bits of evidence for this, but at the outset it seems worth noting that we don’t hear of anything like dedicated anti-horse-archer tactics here (or indeed, in many places we might expect them). As we’ve discussed, unlike in video-games where horse archers can sit at long range with virtual impunity, actual horse archers have to get fairly close to their enemies, making them in turn vulnerable both to missile fire and to sudden charges by melee cavalry. Generally, the successful Roman responses to horse archers (and the Romans do beat horse archer armies fairly frequently) was to use their heavy infantry to provide an unassailable ‘base’ (protected by shields from arrow fire) for either missile troops, cavalry or artillery (torsion catapults) to engage the enemy cavalry. Failure tended to be the result of situations where the killing element (cavalry, missile troops, artillery) is put in situations where it cannot be supported by the infantry, or vice-versa.
An interesting source here is Arrian’s Array against the Alans (you can find a translation here); the Alani were an steppe nomadic people and Arrian presents a notional battle formation for fighting them, although there is no indication this formation was ever used in any particular battle. Arrian suggets a formation which places the heavy infantry in the front ranks, with javelin and archer troops directly behind them (he suggests finding a position where these troops can be on higher ground, for understandable reasons) with field artillery (torsion catapults, again) deployed on the flanks and to the rear. The cavalry is placed tightly on the flanks behind the infantry. The plan is to then let the enemy attack, the idea being the enemy cavalry wouldn’t be able to penetrate the infantry line, but would take missile fire from it and the artillery; if the enemy appeared to break half of the cavalry was to be released to pursue with the rest kept in reserve in case that was a feint. It’s not clear how much this matches actual Roman practice, but it isn’t an absurdly impractical battle plan.
Arrian’s positioning of his cavalry as purely an exploitation force seems to speak almost directly to the mistakes made at Carrhae (53BC) where (Marcus Licinius) Crassus’ army was defeated in part his son, Publius Licinius Crassus foolishly advanced with a fairly large part of the cavalry, was lured away from the main force and destroyed in detail (Plut. Crass. 25.1-3; Dio 40.21.2-3). It’s also striking just how few missile troops Crassus seems to have at Carrhae in the narratives of the battle we do have, compared to Arrian’s assumption of fairly ample missile troops (including friendly horse archers and field artillery). Disaster in Mark Antony’s own Parthian campaign (in 36 BC) also began with dividing the army, in this case splitting off the siege train from the main army. The Parthians destroyed the detached siege train which substantially hindered Antony’s later siege operations (Plut. Antony 38.3), though Antony is still able to win a field engagement by luring the Parthians close enough to his lines that his cavalry could dash out (almost exactly as Arrian imagines it), and ‘catch’ the Parthian cavalry in close combat near enough that the heavy infantry could follow up and support (Plut. Antony 39.3-5). Antony’s campaign subsequently falls apart, however, due to logistics issues.
The importance of infantry and missile troops working together is also apparent from our man, the one, the only, Publius Ventidius Bassus (::airhorn sound::) and his defeat of a major Parthian army at the Battle of Cyrrhestica in 38 BC. Bassus’ army was positioned on the high ground and when the Parthians were lured into an attack, the Roman heavy infantry held and then forced the cavalry back down the slope, catching at least some of it in close combat in the confusion. Dio, who reports the battle, notes especially the impact of slingers who could effectively reach out and strike the Parthians at range (Dio, 49.20.2).
I will say that I find it striking that getting these sorts of tactics almost never work effectively in modern tactics games (like the Total War franchise), which is part of what made me write that post on archery and ‘kiting’ back in 2019.
Q: Carabas asks, “How do you go about picking a given fictional battle and composing/researching a series like the ones you’ve done [Siege of Gondor, Helm’s Deep and the Loot Train Battle]?”
The planning process for the “Siege of Gondor” series actually set the mold for a lot of how I set up and plan these longer series, since it was the first (and also, incidentally, remains the most popular). I’d initially thought to look at the Siege of Gondor itself because I knew there were going to be positive things I could say about it and I wanted to avoid just ending up with the blog as one more ‘historical nitpick society’ that was only ever negative. I had originally planned to just move through the battle in sequence and hadn’t thought a ton about the structure; it was in drafting the first post that I realized that there was an opportunity here to demonstrate some of the core concepts in military history in a systematic way.
And you can actually see in the process of writing that series in particular that I sort of ‘find’ the identity of the blog (I had always planned it as a history-and-pop-culture blog, of course, but if you look at the oldest posts in the first few weeks one would be forgiven for thinking the blog was going to be ‘historian complains about Game of Thrones‘ and mostly focused on arms, armor and tactics); it was the point where I realized I could actually use these long series (and the pop-culture reference point) to get into more sophisticated historical analysis (something beyond “that armor is comically wrong”) in an accessible and interesting way.
Now while I’d like to say I have a good, well-organized system for all of this, I really don’t. I keep a number of (poorly organized) lists of potential topics, but mostly I just sort of back-burner these ideas until they ripen. I don’t have any particular pipeline in part because I seem to always have more things to write than I have time to write them (my blog-writing ‘backlog’ has nothing on my research backlog where I have at least a decade’s worth of research projects sitting in ‘ideas’ folders just waiting for me to have the time to do them). Though it is hard to see because of the frequent delays between when a concept is ready to start drafting and when I actually start drafting, a lot of these topics emerge out of either earlier posts (Lonely Cities is a direct continuation, for instance, of my complaints about Peter Jackson’s ‘Pelennor Steppe‘) or out of what I am teaching. It is more often that I’m driven along by the historical concept I want to explain than by the pop-culture reference point, which is why I often find “can you discuss X fantasy novel/show/film?” requests difficult to get my head around if I don’t already have a sense of what the historical concept would be.
I generally keep topics restricted to those which aren’t going to require a lot of bespoke new research (just for time constraints, if nothing else), so once I’ve decided on a topic I can typically already look through my existing research notes or teaching notes to get the beginnings of a bibliography (and then blast my university library with book requests so I can go look up details). Ironically the battle post series required very minimal research time; most of the books I reference there I own and since pre-modern armies is what I do, I could often just speak from my own knowledge. When a topic is really foreign to me (the Dothraki series is a good example, both the Mongols and Native American Plains cultures are well outside of my specialty), I generally take the expedient of asking someone I know who does do that sort of history, typically with the question, “What should I read?” (asking for bibliography is a substantially smaller ‘ask’ than asking for a direct explanation of complex historiography). Many, many of my colleagues can likely report getting those emails, twitter DMs, Facebook messages, or hallway conversations.
There’s something of an irony here, because for my research writing I am very systematic in my approach, with lots of planning and outlining, but for ACOUP I am much more willing to just start writing on a topic and see where I end up (the entire outline for the Fortifications series lives on a single page of a 7×4 inch notepad).
Q: Leo Zhang (two in one week!) asks, “Are there any historical analogs for something like Lodge of Sorceresses in the Witcher series who pull the strings of local monarchs from behind the scenes?”
A: This particular trope, the trans-national cabal of educated knowledge-havers who manipulate secular rulers in pursuit of some hidden agenda (the Lodge, but also the Maesters of A Song of Ice and Fire seem to qualify, as do the Mages and Templars of the DragonAge setting) has always made me more than a bit uncomfortable, because there are historical analogs, but they have more to do with historical prejudices than actual historical power-structures.
The fairly obvious starting point for this trope seems to be the medieval Catholic Church which was a trans-national organization of educated people operating in a society with low literacy rates. In Western Europe, the Church really did have possession of a lot of the knowledge available to those societies and it did exist to a degree outside of the scope of secular power (though to what degree changes considerably depending on where and when you look). But treating the church as a single, more-or-less unified actor pursuing a single set of political goals resembles less the actual medieval Catholic Church and more early modern and modern anti-Catholic rhetoric (e.g. fears as late as 1960 that a Catholic president would be ‘under the sway’ of the foreign interests of the Pope, which were significant enough about them that Kennedy was asked about them and issued statements to assuage them that, “the Church does not speak for me.”).
The actual medieval clergy (especially its upper reaches) was more typically drawn from the same families which filled the ranks of the aristocracy; bishops and cardinals tended to be the brothers and cousins of dukes and kings. They also tended to have their seats in the regions they came from and very often were as loyal (and sometimes more so) to their local rulers than to the Holy See. Not for nothing did Henry IV, when he wrote to object to Pope Gregory VII’s reforms in 1075, write that he did so “with all of my Bishops.” Moreover, while in fantasy fiction the machinations of these literate cabals are seemingly unnoticed by the secular rulers, actual medieval kings were well aware of the influence of the Church and pushed back on it to secure what they saw as their own prerogatives (with mixed success). Where the church won these confrontations, its power was not in manipulation, but in religious authority; these people, after all, believed their religion, which invested the clergy with spiritual powers that mattered to folks.
Even more uncomfortable is the degree to which these fictional organizations seem to reflect nonsense antisemitic canards which claimed that there was some ‘vast Jewish conspiracy’ directing world events from the shadows. This in turn reflects a sort of prejudice frequently suffered by ‘Middleman minorities‘ in both historical and modern societies. Highly educated Jews show up fairly frequently in medieval and early modern European courts, often (but not always) because of their role in finance (since Christians were not permitted to lend to other Christians at interest). The existing prejudice also made those same Jews vulnerable to being scapegoated – often by, and for the failures of, the same secular rulers who invited them in the first place – and persecuted.
Conspiracy theories of this sort, blaming problems on a cabal of highly placed ‘Papists’ or ‘the Jews’ have thus always been around (and frequently been distressingly popular), despite again – to be clear – being garbage nonsense. Absolutely the medieval Catholic church wielded massive institutional power, but it did so openly and the clergy were hardly a single united bloc with a single plan pulling the strings of the world towards a collective goal. Meanwhile, if it even needs say, there was not then and is not now any vast Jewish conspiracy. Persecuted minorities almost definitionally do not wield substantial institutional power; if they did, they wouldn’t be persecuted.
Humans are clearly drawn to these sorts of conspiracy theories, imagining power wielded from behind the scenes, but in actual history, most power is held by the obvious fellows who command armies and rule states and wield that power openly. Because the fact is, the ruler with access to lots of soldiers with weapons generally has no reason to let anyone pull their strings.
And that’s that for this week’s deliberations! Next week, hopefully, we’ll continue our march through fortifications!